Philadelphia, Meet Your Future
My Philadelphia night out with Joey Sweeney starts at his very cool pad in Bart Blatstein’s NoLibs — that’s Northern Liberties for those of you living under a rock — in the very room where the Philebrity magic happens, five days a week. Here’s 33-year-old Joey, with his quintessentially Irish face, brown hair stylishly cut and stylishly faintly greasy, brown rectangular glasses making his brown eyes seem tiny. We’re joined by his girlfriend Ruth Carpenter, 26, and their black mutt Charlie, who at the moment seems to be trying to steal a sip of my beer.
There’s smoke in the air (what kind, you ask?), and it occurs to me now at this very moment that this does not feel very much like the newsroom of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The loft is filled haphazardly with books, hundreds of CDs, a poster of British drug-addict rock star Pete Doherty’s band, and four rather standard-looking computers, all lit by a bank of windows extending up to the partially open second floor. An obscure Philly indie CD is playing in the background.
And yet, if Joey Sweeney — the co-founder and editor of Philebrity.com, the city’s self-styled hippest blog, which aims to cover alternatively our arts, gossip and media scenes — is to be believed, far more Important People (read: 18-to-35-year-olds, the fastest growing and most financially carefree demographic in the New Cool Philly) read what he, Ruth, and an intern from Temple put together than read the Inquirer. Which according to Joey Sweeney, at the moment one of the most influential and at the same time obscurest Philebrities you’ve probably never heard of, is a nice little bit of "comeuppance."
"It’s sort of like white flight," Sweeney says of the Inky’s current troubles — sinking circulation, ownership turnover, lackluster quality, general irrelevance. "It’s like what’s happened to all the people who moved out of Philly in the white flight. And now they all wish they were a part of this" — Philebrity’s subculture. He calls it "arrogance" that the paper in recent years reoriented itself away from its hometown and to the suburbs to appeal to the readers who fled the city during its more turbulent times. And now they all wish they were a part of this, Joey says, sweeping his hand through the air and metaphorically across Old City, and then up through NoLibs and on toward — can you even believe this? — Fishtown, where Joey grew up and which he recalls as a "white ghetto," the transformation now spreading north across Philadelphia in a giant, incandescent ripple of coolness.
It’s that ripple that Joey’s riding for a living, albeit not much of one. Dominating Philly news this week has been the controversy over the reinstallation of the Rocky statue outside the Art Museum. Sweeney, perhaps predictably, is not such a fan of the idea. Philebrity.com has come down hard in opposition, in a tone that often smacks of sanctimony and superciliousness — a kind of snarkiness that seems endemic in the blogging world. The statue, he’s written, is "a giant piece of shit" and a "retarded monstrosity" and "a cloying embarrassment to this city’s long and illustrious art history." As if that’s not direct enough:
The Rocky statue is FUCKING UGLY and our city is run by UNSOPHISTICATED RUBES.
Over the course of the night, as Ruth and Joey and I head out across this city, the Rocky issue will come up again. The people we’ll talk to about it will uniformly share Sweeney’s position. Which, if you think about it, is significant. For the Rocky question is really one much larger and more complicated than whether a 2,000-pound bronze effigy of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa should stand on the grounds of one of the world’s finest art museums. It’s a question, in the mind of Sweeney and people like him — people who, whether you’ve heard of them or not, represent a large, growing and influential slice of urban life — about Philadelphia’s identity at a time of seemingly breakneck change.
Later, Ruth will summarize things best. "Rocky," she’ll say, as Joey stands beside her nodding, "is just not who we are anymore."
JOEY SWEENEY IS, in many ways, the embodiment of the strange confluence of factors shaping this city in 2006 — a Philadelphia morphing from cheesesteaks, Rocky movies and a gritty manufacturing vibe to trendsetting restaurateur Stephen Starr’s culinary headquarters, auteur filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan’s muse, and, perhaps, the first metropolitan area to offer citywide wi-fi Internet access.
"Philadelphia was like the last great Soviet city. Everything was broken — you know, it’s amazing that the thing fucking works at all," Sweeney says of the transformation currently taking place. "Certainly culturally, Philly is a better place to be now than it ever has been in my life. And I feel like in a lot of ways, whether we" — he means Philebrity — "meant to or not, we’ve sort of assumed the mantle of that. But it is kind of funny, because sometimes I feel like we’re so tied up in whatever that debate is, and whatever the movement is about."
It seems a Philadelphia-ism in the first place that Joey Sweeney, at the end of the day a rather big-fish-small-pond character, with a website that is, in all candor, a handful of random daily posts, could be at the forefront of "whatever the movement is about." He views Philebrity.com as entertainment — as a diversion, really — for the thousands of young Philadelphians who find themselves trapped inside gray cubicles in offices around the city — "People fucking hating their lives," he says. Accordingly, the site is updated around the hours of the workday. Sweeney, an on-again, off-again rock musician, considers advancing indie music one of his primary goals, particularly here in Philly, which he calls "the greatest alternative music scene in the country." So his day starts with an often frantic search for music he can post to his website and put his audience on to, and a photo — preferably of a Philly scene — that can set a kind of tone for the day.
Sweeney claims that Philebrity is currently being read by 100,000 unique — or individual — visitors a month, and rising. For perspective, the Daily News circulates to 116,000 readers daily. The Inquirer has about 350,000. Assuming that, by and large, the same readers buy the papers each day, Sweeney’s numbers represent significant competition, especially among the all-important younger-adult demographic. And it’s that age group, of course, that Sweeney is not only trying to attract, but to define.
WE’RE WAITING FOR THE movie/show to start.
Inside a theater at the International House near Penn’s campus, Joey and Ruth and I are standing by the entrance. This is an event Philebrity.com has written an advance about, and Joey and Ruth also happen to be friends with the harpist who will soon take the stage, along with members of other various Philly instrumental groups who have written a 73-minute score for the 1970 Czechoslovakian surrealist film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which will play without sound. It will make watching The Wizard of Oz to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon seem like child’s play.
Joey asks Ruth and me if we’d like a beer, and as he’s leaving the auditorium to fetch them, I can’t help but think that he hardly seems the image of the scenester power broker he’s become. Soft-spoken and utterly innocuous-looking, he blends easily into the background, another dark-haired young hipster in an auditorium full of them. Rarely if at all does he betray the confident condescension that is a hallmark of his website; only at the computer in the hermetically sealed confines of his home office does he apparently feel comfortable letting the gloves come off. He returns with three warm beers in plastic cups, which we press together with a "Cheers."
It seems Joey and Ruth know the majority of the people coming in and out of the theater, a mix of gelled and shaggy hair, Urban Outfitters and consignment threads. Onstage at the moment is a young woman with long hair parted in the middle, wearing a black gauzy dress. In a voice reminiscent of comedienne Rita Rudner’s, she tells the audience: "This next song is a Pablo Neruda poem put to music. So it’s not in English. But you can get the jive."
Joey bemoans the fact that Philly is again making national headlines for something that "makes us look stupid" — that Rocky statue. "I think it’s a huge embarrassment," Joey says to Ruth and another couple — an attractive, pigtailed girl dressed in thrift-shop chic, the guy with long sideburns, a black film festival t-shirt, several silver rings on his fingers. All nod in agreement. The pigtailed girl is carrying a large leather bag, which contains a fully stocked bar — a "Port-A-Bar," she informs us. She’s carrying a small pocketknife as well, which she’s using to cut limes.
Rocky is an embarrassment like the Geno’s cheesesteak controversy, which, by the way, Philebrity.com was the first to break (albeit basically accidentally), when Joey a year ago noticed the sign instructing patrons to order in English and posted a cell phone picture on his website, saying: "Honestly, guys, the cop fetish is cute and all, and, hell, I’m willing to roll with just about anything for the finest whiz-wit on the planet, but this smacks of something not very nice at all. … Besides, how many people actually roll up on the sandwich window and start speaking Sudanese and shit?" (Of the cheesesteak incident, Joey will tell me: "I just felt like more and more Geno’s was, like, wrapping itself in this cloak of authoritarianism. … This guy’s fetishized authority, he’s fetishized Americanism, and he’s worked it into his business plan, which I think is really unseemly. There should be no viewpoint of a cheesesteak. It should not have a political persuasion.")
After an introduction by one of the musicians — I learn later that some of them are the group the Espers, who apparently live in a compound in Fishtown — the show starts.
You no doubt want to know about the movie. Unfortunately, I can’t explain much, because it’s too dark in the theater for me to take notes, and honestly, I’m too disturbed to do anything but watch. The opening scene features Valerie, an attractive teenage girl, rubbing a teardrop pearl earring over her body. I look over at Joey and Ruth, sitting two rows behind me, and realize Joey’s wearing the same outfit he was the last time I saw him: white button-down shirt buttoned almost to the top, gathering slightly over his slight gut; black Wrangler jeans; green socks; Wallabee shoes. He and Ruth watch intently as the screen flashes quickly from one scene to another, the live score disconcertingly haunting: a weasel with something in its mouth; bleeding on a daisy; a grandmother who’s probably 35 and an albino; partially clothed Euro chicks making out in a stream, sticking fish down their nightgowns; a hideous-looking man with a monster face and a mouth full of fangs; a most frightening religious figure preaching about virginity to a mass of white-clothed young girls; a freak in a black cloak carrying around a bichon frise; your token vampires; a naked man doing back flips; writhing chickens; more Euro tittage. At one point Valerie, according to the subtitles, declares: "The weasel is my father."
As we’re walking out, I have a headache and feel like I’ve just survived an intense acid trip.
"Amazing," says Ruth.
"Awesome," says Sweeney.
JOEY SWEENEY BECAME well-known around the city during a seven-year stint as a writer, columnist and editor with the Philadelphia Weekly. His work earned him several awards, including top honors for music criticism from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. But it wasn’t just his strong, perceptive and sometimes seriously acerbic prose that made people read his stuff and talk about him. His tendency to refer to himself — and his personal story — self-indulgently in his writing made him something of an alt-guy lightning rod around Philly.
Particularly decadent, for instance, was a Weekly piece he wrote about his music playlist at his 2002 wedding, held at NoLibs’ trendy 700 Club — "usual home of DJ Abby Klein and Mr. 10 Fingers," he informed his readers in his lead. On the rationale behind the choice of the Beach Boys’ plebeian "God Only Knows" as his and wife Reyna’s wedding song, he wrote: "Mr. & Mrs. Sweeney chose this song, though, for a host of reasons: The sentiment of the song points to exactly how lost the both of us would be without the other’s guiding hand; the peerless production values and arrangement; and, it must be said, how invoking a kook like Brian Wilson at our wedding would at least for a second take the attention off us and if nothing else, make us appear vaguely normal by comparison. There was not a dry eye in the house." The marriage lasted two years.
Joey’s self-obsession invited attacks. They would eventually include personal insults, such as those peddled by a tiny ‘zine called Cherry Coke, which mocked Sweeney as having "the face of a 15-year-old boy and the ass of a 40-year-old woman." In the 1990s, an obscure private e-mail chain called Dummytown, created by a group of fellow scenesters, some of whom Sweeney had apparently burned ("He has a tendency to cast aside friends and associates when he no longer feels that they’re serving his purposes," says Jonathan Valania, a former friend, Weekly staff writer, and especially former contributor to Philebrity. "There is a bit of a body count") took issue with everything from the facts in Sweeney’s stories to his style to his ability as a writer. Sweeney claims today that the posts didn’t bother him all that much, but a Dummytown participant who knew Joey at the time remembers otherwise. "Because this town is so small, the list became comprised of a lot of people who had problems with Joey," says the former participant. "And he took it pretty badly."
Which is ironic — or at least paradoxical — given the niche that Sweeney would carve out for himself. In 2004, after a falling-out with Weekly editors and a year of freelancing for other publications, including Time Out New York and Salon.com, Sweeney and partner Adam Farrell launched Philebrity.com.
Through the site, Sweeney takes wide and sometimes nasty swipes. Popular targets are Philly Philebrities, like author Jennifer Weiner: "a walking Cathy cartoon" and a member of the "Frump Nation … sweatpants punditry" who writes "Haagen Das" [sic] literature. And then, of course, there are the TV news personalities: During Monica Malpass’s unexplained absence not long ago, Sweeney speculated she was "sent back to the helmet-haired robot factory from whence she sprang." "Cherie Bank, God love her, is too fat these days to be doling out health advice." (For more from Sweeney, see Philebrity’s greatest hits.)
The word Philebrity, Sweeney says, has been in local parlance for some time; it’s a bit of playful condescension to describe the tiny group of people who are the fixtures of the rather embarrassing Philly celebrity scene: "It could be Ed Rendell, it could be Danny Bonaduce, it could be somebody from some small band, it could be the hot girl you see everywhere."
Or, it could nowadays very well be Joey Sweeney. Which, of course, is the point. Strike a pose, adopt a persona. Do it in style. And rage. Joey’s got his reasons.
A FIFTH-GENERATION Philadelphian, Joey Sweeney was born in 1972, the son of 16-year-old Paula Tuno and her 17-year-old boyfriend Joe Sweeney, both lifelong Fishtown kids. Pregnant Paula was expelled from Hallahan Catholic. (She finished later at Kensington.) Joe Sr. attended North Catholic. Like many in Fishtown, Joe Sr. eventually got seduced by drugs. His life unraveled, as did his short-lived marriage to Joey’s mom, and he fell out of his son’s life for a while.
Music became unusually important to Joey early on. A pivotal moment came one night when he was just six. His 22-year-old mother, a nurse assistant, was at work, and he was sitting in his grandmother’s basement with his two aunts — 14 and 16, respectively — who were listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. Sweeney would write years later — in a piece published on Salon.com and written mostly in the third person — that at this moment, at six years old, he had an epiphany: You can use music in your brain to make all the awful things that are happening to you somehow romantic and character-building and, better than all of this, cool in a way that will, one day at least, show up all the kids who, even this early on, are calling you a faggot and a sissy. Through this rock music, thinks Sweeney, you will show them. It will add a romantic dimension to your life by making it explode with light and music; it will add layers to what is now bare. It will cover things up. It will make boo-boo better.
Sweeney’s mom remarried, and the family lived in a rowhouse in the 1500 block of East Berks Street. Joey found his neighborhood tough. As the other kids were pumping "guido music" from their teal Chevy IROCs — songs like "Let the Music Play" and "Diamond Girl" — Sweeney, nerdy and unathletic, obsessed over Brit post-punk bands like the Smiths and Echo & the Bunnymen. He was taunted and chased home from school. In conversations about his old neighborhood, Sweeney often is breathtakingly disparaging. "Nobody in Fishtown understands birth control," he tells me, "so it’s like fucking Lord of the Flies. It’s just like kids running around, fucking harassing people, just like animals."
He says black families trying to move into the neighborhood were intimidated, threatened and scared off. "Friday nights the older kids would go down to Front Street and literally have knife fights with the Puerto Ricans," he says. "Everybody was trying to protect, like, the whiteness of the neighborhood for a long time. But the reality was that there was nothing to protect. It was shit."
Salvation for Joey came in the form of — well, Christ’s peeps. Instead of sending him to high school at North Catholic, where the other kids, his mom and stepdad told him, "would eat me alive," they insisted Joey go to St. Joe’s Prep. It would prove a life-changing bit of parental strong-arming. Over the next four years, Joey’s four parents — his father by then drug-free, back in Joey’s life, remarried and working for PGW — all scrimped and saved to make the tuition payments.
At the Prep — ultimately on his way to St. Joe’s U — Joey experienced his fair share of culture shock. He felt embarrassed as his mother, then barely 30, was often mistaken for his sister at school events. The always difficult transition to adolescence was compounded by his Fishtown background. "The process [was] arduous," he recalled self-righteously in the same Salon.com piece, and the entire time he felt "caught between two worlds: one that is defiantly, stupidly poor, uneducated and paralyzed with derisive fear of all that lies outside of it, and another that is made bored and too comfortable by wealth and education, and still paralyzed with derisive fear of all that lies outside of it."
Still, for the first time in his life he met kids who were like him in interests and thinking (and in Morrissey haircuts). Playing alternative music with them, honing his writing skills, Joey changed; at the Prep, he consciously dropped his deep North Philly accent, and the school "turned out to be the thing that sort of made me who I am."
FOLLOWING THE MOVIE at the International House, Ruth and Joey and I head over to the North Star club in Fairmount, for some DJs and a rock band Sweeney’s hyped on Philebrity. Here, the crowd is decidedly more Diesel jeans and Stella Artois. But there is some overlap from the previous event. Like the girl with the pigtails and the Port-A-Bar, and her boyfriend with the sideburns, who now are sitting at our table and who I’ve just been told are actually Kendra Gaeta and Laris Kreslins, both in their early 30s, both transplants from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the brains behind movetophilly.com, the campaign that offers personal tours of Philly to encourage young, smart people like us to move here and that was featured in the now famous — or infamous — New York Times piece "Philadelphia Story: The Next Borough." Kreslins is the founder and publisher of the well-respected free arts and culture magazine Arthur, and he and his girlfriend are apparently a Big Fucking Deal around Philly at the moment. Another Philly scenester at the table, Ryan Creed — who a minute ago was plotting out loud how to exploit his one degree of separation from Nate Berkus, Oprah Winfrey’s decorator — tells me: You’re right now sitting at the center of Philadelphia top-shelf, A-list hipster power. I laugh — and then realize he’s mostly serious.
In short order the conversation moves to what it seems it’s always swimming around — New York, or more specifically Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or more specifically Philadelphia vis-à-vis New York and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As it turns out, just to prove how small and incestuous this town is, also sitting with us — along with Dryw Scully, a DJ and the music promotions coordinator for Urban Outfitters, and a girl from WHYY — is Jessica Pressler, the former Weekly writer who actually penned the Times’s sixth-borough story (and now writes for this magazine). She tells us that the sixth-borough analogy — the story said Philadelphians sometimes refer to their city, often self-deprecatingly, as the sixth borough, which generated a fair amount of annoyance both here and in New York — was something she used to explain to New Yorkers quickly and easily how Philly’s been changing. (In an e-mail interview with Philebrity during the initial brouhaha, she wrote, "It’s kind of like when you give a dog a pill — you wrap it in something you know they like, such as cheese.") Joey, finished with his shot of Jäger and sipping another drink, for the most part defends Pressler and the story — he tells me that "for once, the trending actually sort of has stuff to back it up" — which doesn’t really surprise me.
Because Joey Sweeney’s not just a hipster, or at least not your stereotypical I’m-too-cool-to-give-a-shit-and-by-the-way-are-these-jeans-too-tight? hipster. Joey’s also an advocate, for himself of course — for his own image and his own power — but also for Philadelphia, for the cultural and economic changes happening in this city, something he sees as necessary for its future.
There’s a strange cognitive dissonance that Sweeney carries around. The up-from-nothing guy who fuels his frothy annoyance at the uncool powers that be has, it turns out, an interesting relationship with those powers. He lives on the edge — almost literally — of his old neighborhood, in that Bart Blatstein "artists’ loft" in a former manufacturing facility, just down the street from the rubble that is the remains of the Schmidt’s brewery at 2nd and Girard, just blocks from where he grew up, with signs of gentrification — of change — all around.
Sweeney’s a staunch defender of restaurant juggernaut Starr, and he was enticed to come to NoLibs by Blatstein, one of the most controversial developers in city history, who several years ago bought up a huge swath of the neighborhood and decided to make it a kind of experiment in hip urban revitalization, with a sort of Ikea touch. In what can only be described as a brilliant piece of enviro-marketing, Blatstein recruited Sweeney to move to what’s now his loft, to make that area Ground Zero for Philebrity, and to host parties in the nearby streets, which are not municipally owned. There would seem to be something undeniably dirty about this, a blogger who attempts to exude alternative independence having, at the least, a close relationship with a megapowerful developer. "It seems like right now, [Philebrity’s] becoming more of a marketing tool for events than an actual information source. Which is fine, but then that’s what you should call it," says Julie Gerstein, 28, a writer and DJ who has been friends with Sweeney for years and worked briefly for Philebrity. "A lot of people question where his loyalties are."
Sweeney’s reply to this sort of criticism — of which there is much — is swift, if not altogether airtight: Philebrity, he says, "is neither fish nor fowl. It’s a city blog. It’s a blog that constantly talks about all things Philadelphia. Where I think people get confused is, it’s not journalism. It’s something else."
How much Sweeney is earning from Blatstein isn’t entirely clear. Though rumors of Blatstein as Sweeney’s sugar daddy are pervasive — several scenesters were adamant that Sweeney gets help with his rent or pays none at all — Sweeney says no such quid pro quo exists: "It’s not like we are getting any kind of discount simply to be here," he says. Blatstein, however, tells me that Sweeney does receive a discounted rent, but declined to say how much he actually pays. Sweeney adds that any "discount" is in exchange for advertising on the site, a bartering arrangement. (Blatstein says that having people like Sweeney in the neighborhood "lends to the synergy of creative types" and "greatly enhances the energy of the area.") Sweeney claims Philebrity is financially viable; he also tells me the electric bill often goes unpaid for months, he has no health insurance, and he lives "hand to mouth."
But as for Philadelphia’s metamorphosis, what about the old neighborhoods — the old Fishtown that was his home? Neighborhoods changing in price, style and reputation, no doubt leaving at least some residents displaced, or at least feeling left out, or at least struggling with the change? Sweeney sees only roses.
"With Fishtown, it’s sort of funnier gentrification, because it’s, like, a lot of people who just wanted nothing for years and years but to be able to move to New Jersey anyway," he says. "So people in Fishtown really aren’t getting pushed out." And where are they going? "They’re moving to Cherry Hill, they’re moving to little places like Magnolia, they’re just moving to Jersey — you know, Jersey. And also I’m sure there’s a lot of people moving further up to the Northeast — onward and upward."
That analysis, though, ignores what generally happens to the natives when the money hits a dead-end neighborhood. I ask Sweeney if he thinks about the people who will be affected (read: pushed out of Fishtown).
Sweeney: "Do I? Yeah, I mean, like, they’re my people, that’s my family. A lot of whom have probably moved out of Fishtown in the last 15 years. But my mother and my stepfather still live in the same house I grew up in. They’re ecstatic about it. Their property value shot through the roof. What’s happening is a good thing."
Okay, then. It’s pressing 3:30 in the morning, back at Joey’s loft in NoLibs. Once again, there’s smoke in the air. Joey’s showing me the old jukebox in his living room that used to be his Fishtown grandfather’s. For once this night, I actually recognize the music playing, if only from my parents’ favorite oldies stations: "Crimson & Clover," "12:30 (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)", and Maxine Nightingale’s "Right Back Where We Started From," Sweeney’s all-time favorite song, which he says makes him cry every time he hears it. Ruth’s here, and so is the dog Charlie, and so is some statuesque guy who’s apparently toured Australia with his band, and his girlfriend, resplendent in a canary-colored Donna Reed dress. We’re drinking more beers, and the conversation moves along a familiar arc — Northern Liberties, New York, Philly music. And all of a sudden I’m reminded of a conversation Joey and I had earlier, when I asked him about the meaning of hipster.
"When people talk about this stuff they’re generally talking about artists and creative types, and the thing about artists and creative types is throughout time they’ve never gotten done all the things they said they were gonna get done. But that’s people — I don’t really think that’s indicative to any sort of social strata. … For me, it’s hard to stick up for hipsters. It’s hard to bash hipsters. It’s hard to say I am a hipster, and it’s hard to say I’m not. Any different person will ascribe a completely different meaning to what that is."
Just as it would seem any different person can ascribe a completely different meaning to what — or rather who — Joey Sweeney is. A nerdy, quiet, almost gentle presence in public, who retreats to his keyboard to rail against others’ ability, taste, intellect, body size and personal appearance. A "Fishtown boy" who flashes his hardscrabble roots like a badge but labored to erase the accent. The hyper, über-alternative media guy subsidized by a rich developer. And yet, for whatever else Joey Sweeney might be, not one person I spoke to ever called him fake, or a phony. For it is, in fact, the paradox — the inconsistency — that seems to define him. That he can contain all the contradictions — that he keeps right on rolling along because of them — just might be the real meaning of this elusive hipster thing. Or at least Joey Sweeney.
Dan P. Lee last wrote for Philadelphia on the death of Ellen Andros.